During this long pandemic, many of us have been spending a large amount of time at home and away from our usual activities and friends. Some of us have found that this situation provided us with more flexibility to improve our health, such as by starting a new exercise routine or exercising more. Others have found the opportunity to cook at home more often and are reaping the benefits of a healthier diet. For others of us, the COVID-19 pandemic time has negatively influenced our physical and psychological health.
Additionally, new research in a 2021 issue of “Circulation,” from the American Heart Association (Levine, et.al.) details how much the number one killer of Americans, cardiovascular disease, is also greatly affected by the various forms of psychological stress as well as poor eating and physical activity patterns.
If psychological stressors have you struggling with eating healthier foods and/or exercising, which has resulted in unwanted weight gain, you will want to continue reading.
Paying Attention to Hunger and Mindless Eating
First, let’s discuss some of the reasons for mindless eating and the behaviors causing us to consume excess calories. We’ll then move onto concrete suggestions to help you be more mindful of your intake and identify techniques to help modify sabotaging behaviors. Finally, we’ll discuss new research to help us limit the “chatter” that our minds create to cope with stress and how calming this chatter may help drive healthier lifestyle habits.
Why do we make the choices we do for food and beverage consumption? Our body’s hunger scale, from 1 to 10, is one reason we make certain food choices. A rating of 1 to 4 indicates you aren’t actually hungry, while a 5 to 8 signifies normal hunger, and a 9 to 10 reflects you are starving. If you rate yourself between 1 and 4, you are eating for reasons other than hunger: boredom, depression or stress. This stress can also be due to anxiety, social isolation, loneliness, anger and pessimism — and all may be associated with the pandemic. When you are at a 9 or 10, you are overly hungry, have waited too long to eat, and will likely overeat. To keep our blood sugar stable and prevent this extreme hunger, we need to eat roughly every 4 to 5 hours (not counting overnight). If there is too much time between meals, it’s a good idea to plan a snack. What we are aiming for is eating when you are between a 5 and an 8 (normal hunger). For those who have not used this hunger scale, give yourself some time to understand your hunger and how 5 to 8 feels for you.
If you think you are eating to pacify a need or fill a void from boredom, loneliness or other stress, write down everything you eat and drink, the amounts, your feelings before and/or while you are eating for a few days, and your hunger rating between 1 and 10. For example, in the 2009 book “The Volumetrics Eating Plan,” author Barbara J. Rolls writes about research that shows we do not fill up on liquids, so it’s very easy to consume too many calories without realizing it. So, as you review what you’ve written down, take note of any patterns that emerge.
Making changes from mindless consumption fueled by negative thoughts and feelings can seem challenging. If you think you will feel too deprived and miss your comfort foods or drink too much of high-calorie beverages, plan to include some of these in your eating plan, but less often and in smaller portions. For example, if you crave ice cream all the time, purchase it once a week at your favorite ice cream shop, but don’t have it at home. This will help you break the daily pattern of the extra 500 calories in two scoops, but allow you to meet your goal and not feel deprived. In the end, it is these unhealthy eating “patterns” sabotaging your weight loss that you need to slowly change to achieve the goal of a healthier you. Over time, these new healthy patterns will become a normal part of your lifestyle.
Quieting a Chatter-Filled Mind
Additionally, how can we calm our chatter-filled mind to prevent overeating and other negative habits? A new book, by University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross, describes “chatter” as the mind’s way to deal with stress by repeating negative thoughts and interpreting an issue as something we cannot manage. He details several excellent suggestions, or tools, to better manage our mind’s chatter. Here are several that may help. Check his book for many more ideas.
Tools to Calm Negative Mind Chatter:
• Use “distanced” self-talk. Speak to yourself as you — use your own name in your mind, such as “Susie.” This leads your mind away from the negative self-talk and leads to better performance under stress and wiser thinking overall.
• Broaden your perspective. Break free of narrow-minded thinking. Think about how the experience you are worrying about compares to other events you have endured or how it fits into the broader scheme of your life and world. Ask yourself how someone you admire would respond to the situation.
• Reframe your experience as a challenge. You possess the ability to change the way you think. Chatter is often triggered when we interpret an experience or issue as a threat or something we can’t manage. Reframe your inner voice by reminding yourself how you have succeeded in the past.
• Build a board of advisers. Find the right people to address your concern. A colleague may help at advising you with work problems or a friend may help with personal problems.
• Seek out physical contact. This may be hard during the pandemic, but a hug or a simple hand squeeze helps our body release oxytocin, a brain chemical that promotes well-being. Even a teddy bear or a pet hug will suffice.
• Minimize passive social media use. Limit frequent scrolling through social media sites. This will help decrease thoughts triggered by envy, anxiety, or self-defeating mind chatter often induced from viewing others’ social media.
Lastly, reaching out to friends or family to discuss issues with boredom, loneliness or depression can be useful. Playing games, hobbies, learning a new skill or language can also help. If you find you need more assistance, contact your health care provider.